Putting the Past to Rest in Ireland

The setting was idyllic, her childhood visit anything but. Thirty-four years later, Nell Casey returns to spectacular Kilkenny to gain perspective on the revelation that blew her family apart

by Nell Casey
Nell Casey
Photograph: Katherine Wolkoff

So much of what I remember about our time here, about my entire childhood, is fragmented. I do not have a -forward-marching memory of my youth, in which recollections line up like good soldiers and tell my story in an orderly fashion. Instead, my memories stop and start, appear and dissolve; they evoke broad emotion more often than they offer a detailed chronological narrative. Much of what comes to mind has an otherworldly, uneasy quality: My mother and father loom as powerful and unpredictable figures, whereas my presence is shadowy, as if I were only lurking around their lives, not actually creating one.

Now that I am steadier on my feet—which is to say, deep into adulthood, with a family as well as hard-earned friendships with both of my parents—I want to revisit, perhaps revise, my notion of the past. Recently, for example, I was distracted by a work dilemma, feeling fraught and put upon, sweating in the summer heat, when my three-year-old daughter began to pull at me and scream. Something in me snapped, and I shrugged her off, ordering her to stop grabbing me. It wasn’t a devastating revelation, but it was enough to send a small flare of forgiveness across the years toward my own mother. A series of these demystifications led me to want to go one step further, to go back and find the reality of a time that had become grandly mythic in my mind. Doing that, I hoped, would help me release some of the unhappiness that I had come to feel over the decades since then.

The month I spent in Ireland with my parents and sister was, as it turned out, a pivotal one. It would be the last vacation we four would spend together, and it would also become the axis on which our family narrative has since turned. During our stay, my mother resolved that she would confess to my father that she had started a relationship with a woman who was not only a close friend of theirs but also the fiancée of a man in their circle. Because events unfolded from there—my parents split up the following year; my mother dated men again briefly before finally moving in with her girlfriend; my father remarried and spent the better part of a decade writing a novel about a woman leaving her husband for a woman—our month in Ireland came to be known as the starting point from which we rocketed eccentrically forth.

When my mother told me some months after our return from Ireland that she and my father were getting a divorce, I immediately “burst into flames,” as she put it, and demanded to know why they’d even given birth to me if they were going to do something like this. “Your fire was justified by the awfulness of the moment,” my mother now recalls, “but I also thought it showed how long you’d been worried about it coming.”

My mother’s secret—vibrating not only in her thoughts but also in my father’s premonitions as well as our vague perception of their problems—did hold sway over the household for much of the time we spent in Ireland. A mute anguish pressed down on us, occasionally surfacing in the expressions on my parents’ faces. I can clearly see my mother lying across the end of my bed as I described a nightmare I’d had the night before. The people I loved had turned into ghosts and come to me with this sinister promise: “You will be in our time.” But even then, sweetly draped at my feet with concern in her eyes, my mother seemed far away.

“I knew that what I was about to do would play out for years in our family,” she told me recently. “But I also wanted to hold on to our countryside idyll a little longer. I felt you and your sister seemed happier and freer in that landscape. I was aware of how extreme and strange, even shocking, the news of my affair was going to be and that once it was out in the open, we would be taken up in a current of destruction that would just drop us where it would. I hoped that we’d be OK eventually, but I was terrified to think of what we were going to have to go through to get there.”

First published in the February 2014 issue

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